Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Singing our Identity in History: Advent and Christmas Songs

Some of my earliest memories are of worshiping among these different cultures. And no, I didn’t go to a Mosque or Temple—as a child I went into people’s homes and yards, worshipping through various experiences. And what I learned has shaped my thinking about places that we worship and other religions to this day.

You see, one of my earliest memories is when Rachel moved into the red house across the alley from us. Despite the fact that she was a year older than I, we became inseparable. Not long after they moved in, their grandfather came over to their house to do what the eldest male is supposed to do—he nailed Shemas on all the doorposts. And I got to go!   

What Rachel’s grandpa did that day was a holy thing, a thing that traces its roots way back to the days of Joshua. For written in Hebrew on those little wooden signs that I watched him nail on the doorposts throughout Rachel’s house were the words “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

This simple act, and the invitation of these friends to invite the girl from the white house across the alley makes me think—how do we remind ourselves, every day, in our coming and our going, in our living—who we are as baptized children of God, saved by the power of Christ’s birth and death? 

As we enter into the season of Christmas, I urge you to think—how does God’s love shape who you are? How do you remind yourself who you are?

It is so easy to get caught up in the Christmas trees and the candles, the cookies and the presents—do these things hang on our door frames, or does the love of God surround us wherever we go? What reminds us that we are Christians, saved by grace? Can the love of Christ, who came to save us, radiate from every ounce of who we are this Christmas season?

One identifier for Christians this time of year, is the sounds that radiate forth from our radios and ipods; Christmas is a season of the liturgical and culture year that is marked by the sound of music. Radio stations compete to see who will be the first to turn on the Christmas music; stores bring it out in the after Halloween rush to put out Christmas decorations—Christmas music is everywhere.

When we sing these words, we take them onto our hearts and minds, and in this act, these words tell our story too. We stand, with the prophet Isaiah, and wait for the Savior; we sing with the angels of the glorious news, and we “view the present through the promise” that Christ’s coming will bring justice and peace into our broken world. And when, placed side by side in a hymnal, these songs tell a narration of where we have been and where we are going. Through the eyes of Advent and Christmas, this story takes on a deeper strength that dares to imagine the strength and power in the begotten love of God.  For, in the convergence of hymnody, we see songs from all times and all places standing alongside each other, singing out the glorious promises of Advent and the glorious fulfillment of Christmas.

            While the story of singing and celebrating Christ’s birth begins in the early church, the story of our Advent and Christmas hymnody beings in the fourth century. At that time, the Christians were fighting to define who they were and what their beliefs meant on a practical level. While the leaders of the church fought their battles, others stepped back and thought about how the issues would affect the people.

One of the big issues was the heresy of Arius, “who claimed that Christ did not have the same nature as God.”[1]  The first stanza of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”  spells out plainly that Christ is “begotten from the Father”, the very controversial phrase of the Nicene Creed. By clarifying this controversy, the author, Aurelius Clemens explains that Christ was not created separately from the Father, but was, instead, born of the Father—begotten, not made. By placing this fundamental teaching within a hymn, Aurelius Clemens was teaching the rebuttal to this very controversial heresy. “Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega—the the source, the ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see evermore and evermore.”[2]

Ambrose of Milan, one of the great Latin church fathers, wrote “Savior of the Nations, Come”. Lift Up Your Hearts (Faith Alive Christian Resources, June 2013) contains seven stanzas for this hymn. The first three “explain in hymn form what the Apostles' Creed confesses: he was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary" (see also Luke 1:26-45). Stanza four alludes to Philippians 2:6-11, which speaks of Christ's humiliation and exaltation. Stanza five is a prayer for faithfulness, and stanza six is a plea that Christ continue to intercede for his people. Stanza seven, a doxology, points to Christ's second coming and the coming of his eternal ‘lasting kingdom.’”[3] This hymn’s stanzas teach the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian to Ambrose, and to us. Yet when we are singing this hymn, we do not often stop and wonder into what situation this hymn was written. One might venture a guess that this hymn was not written for Advent specifically, but rather, to subsequently, tell the people of the fourth century, who they were.

As the pages of time unroll into the era of the reformation, those writing hymns focused on teaching the story of Christ’s birth instead of combating heresies. In the protestant church, the language of the Bible and the liturgical acts within the service were in the vernacular, for the first time in a long time. In addition to this, they did not sing in worship before the protestant reformation—this privilege had been allotted only to the cantors, and those specially trained for singing, so as not to do it incorrectly. An English hymnologist, Eric Routley wrote about this in observation of Charles Wesley’s work in the eighteenth century.

“These [Wesley] hymns were composed in order that men and women might sing their way, not only their experience, but also into knowledge; that the cultured might have their culture baptized and the ignorant might be led into truth by the gentle hand of melody and rhyme.”[4]

And so, what follows in following century or two, are a group of hymns that tell the story of Advent and Christmas.

            Charles Wesley, one of the most prolific hymn writers whose songs have stood the test of time wrote “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in 1739 as one of these songs to teach the story of the season. As with most of Charles Wesley’s writing, this song is dripping with Biblical doctrine which, when sung, places these words of life onto the minds and hearts of all who sing and hear. “Following the re-telling of the angelic visit to the shepherds in the initial stanza, the succeeding verses teach such spiritual truths as the virgin birth, Christ’s deity, the immorality of the soul, the second or new birth, and a concern for Christ-like living.”[5] Charles Wesley isn’t alone. “Silent Night! Holy Night”, “Angels, We Have Heard on High” and many others written in this same period attempt to do the same. (see the hymn listing by year at the end)

A similar thing can be said for the hymns that were written in the post-Vatican II era. In the convening years, the song writers in the Catholic Church realized that the people didn’t have a song; they realized that they needed to write new, accessible songs that taught the story and were easy to learn. And so, people like Marty Haugen stepped up and filled this gap, writing songs like “My Soul in Stillness Waits”. In this song, Marty Haugen puts words for Christ on the people’s lips “O Lord of Light”, “O Spring of Joy”, “O Root of Life”, “O Key of Knowledge” and then proceeds to explain what these words mean in the context of the refrain: “For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits; truly my hope is in you.”[6] However, this song has not stayed in the Catholic Church—these words have traveled and found a way into our hearts and minds, shaping the grand narrative.

And, while we really cannot say definitively what the trend for today’s Advent and Christmas hymnody is, there is a trend toward language of justice. Keith and Kristyn Getty wrote a song  in 2004 called “Imagine” that fits beautifully in this genre that is penetrating not only the Advent Christmas songs of hymnody, but those that are not congregational and therefore, only on the radio. “Imagine a King who would come through the darkness and walk, where I walk...”[7] Throughout the songs that have been recently written, there is a pervasive theme that Christ came to this earth to live for you and for me. The language is personal and gripping, and convicting. Rory Cooney’s “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” also does the same thing. The refrain says: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn...”[8] And while this song is a 1990 rendition of the Magnificat from Luke, the theme that is brought the theme of justice to the forefront more than any other settings has ever done.


During the season of Advent and Christmas we are shaped by the things around us—the business of the season, the consumerism that threatens to take over our lives, and the music that fills the cracks of silence in the malls and in our homes. And so, in this season, we are challenged to live into the story of who we are in the promise and birth of Christ. And just as my friend Rachel lived every day seeing that Shema hang on her doorposts to remind her who and whose she was, may we allow the words that we hear and sing seep into our souls and define whose and who we are. We are Christians, whose story is deep and rich. This story of who we are is seen in the words of the song that define us. May the grace of this season permeate our lives with the stories of the ages as we sing and listen to music; may our ears and eyes be attentive to the words on the pages so that, like Deuteronomy 6 teaches, we may impress these fundamental truths onto our hearts and minds.

Chronological Order of the Advent and Christmas Hymns in Lift Up Your Heats

4th c. ~ Of the Father’s Love Begotten
4th c. and 16th c. ~ Savior of the Nations, Come
9th c. ~ Creator of the Stars of Night
15th c. ~ Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
17th c. ~ On Christmas Night
1671 ~ Comfort, Comfort Now My People
18th c. ~ Angels We have Heard on High
1710 ~ O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
1719 ~ Joy to the World
1735 ~ Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior Comes
1736 ~ On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry
1739 ~ Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
1743 ~ O Come, All Ye Faithful
1744 ~ Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
19th c. ~ Away in a Manger
19th c. ~ Go Tell It on the Mountain
19th c. ~ O Little Town of Bethlehem
19th c. ~ What Child is This
1816 ~ Angels from the Realms of Glory
1818 ~ Silent Night! Holy Night!
1848 ~ Once in Royal David’s City
1853 ~ Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
1870 ~ Ere zij God/Glory to God
20th c. ~ Lord, You Were Rich Beyond All Splendor
20th c. ~ Jesus, Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child
1912 ~ With Joy I Heard My Friends Exclaim
1969 ~ Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace
1982 ~ My Soul in Stillness Waits
1984 ~ Prepare the Way
1985 ~ LORD, You Have Lavished on Your Land
1989 ~ Blessed Be the God of Israel
1989 ~ Gloria/Glory
1990 ~ In the Heavens Shone a Star
1990 ~ My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout
1993 ~ Toda la tierra/All Earth is Waiting
1993 ~ What Feast of Love
1994 ~ Told of God’s Favor
1999 ~ O Shepherd, Hear and Lead Your Flock
2004 ~ Imagine
2011 ~ God Reigns! Earth Rejoices

[1] Brink, Emily R., and Bert Polman, eds. Psalter Hymnal Handbook. Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1998.
[2] “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”: Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413); tr. composite, P.D.
[3] Brink, Emily R., and Bert Polman, eds. Psalter Hymnal Handbook. Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1998.
[4] Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1985, pg. 109.
[5] Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1985, pg. 109.
[6] From “My Soul in Stillness Waits”: Marty Haugen (b. 1950); based on Psalm 62:5 and “O” Antiphons © 1982 GIA Publications, Inc.
[7] From “Imagine”: Keith and Krystyn Getty © 2004 Thankyou Music, admin. by worshiptogether.com songs excl. UK & Europe, admin. by Kingsway Music
[8] From “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout”: Rory Cooney (b. 1952), based on the Magnificant, © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc.

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